Collecting Culture

Date: 1857
Owner: New York Public Library
Source Type: Images


In 1825, the newly independent Republic of Mexico established the Museo Nacional de Mexico, an institution that was at once a monument to Enlightenment science and the Mexican nation. It was one of several national museums founded in Latin America circa 1812 to 1830 to facilitate research and the education of the populace. According to historian Juan Saldana, Latin American nation states created these and other scientific institutions in the early independence period for political and ideological reasons, but also because there were no real economic impetuses to generate local science after the devastation of the wars of independence. The government thus made promulgating science one of its priorities; indeed, this goal was written explicitly in many Latin American constitutions (Saldana 2006).

As with other national museums, Mexico's Museo Nacional was focused on natural history, but at this stage of development museologists had not yet completely segregated ethnographic artifacts from this category. As part of the nationalistic enthusiasm for Mexican things, collectors horded artifacts that highlighted the greatness of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and by the mid nineteenth century the Museo Nacional possessed many of the items that would eventually be housed in the world famous Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which became a separate institution in the mid twentieth century. Among the items pictured here are bas-reliefs from temples, statues, pots, weapons, and an enormous calendar stone.

Yet there are inherent problems with ethnographic displays as science: the process of collecting and displaying ethnographic items fundamentally changes the meaning of those artifacts. Whereas a given statue or tool could have various and multiple meanings for the ethnic group that produced it, the way that it is presented in a museum reduces these meanings to the one (or few) forwarded by a given expert whose opinion is taken as legitimate. Even more limiting were drawings like this one that presented items in two dimensions. Such drawings had to be labeled tersely for organizational purposes and the (often less than accurate) drawings only highlight what the artist considered important thus reducing another observer's ability to empirically study a whole artifact. It is no coincidence that the development of "scientific" anthropology in the late nineteenth century coincided temporally with the specialization of ethnographic exhibits: both were confident in their own ability to know and name alien things objectively, an ethnocentric assumption that has since been seriously called into question.

References: Jenkins, David. "Object Lessons and Ethnographic Displays: Museum Exhibition and the Making of American Anthropology." In Comparative Studies of Society and History, Vol. 36, no. 2 (Apr., 1994), pp. 242-270.


Saldana, Jaun Jose. "Science and Freedom: Science and Technology as a Policy of the New American States." In Saldana, Juan Jose and Bernabe Madrigal, eds. Science in Latin America: A History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. pp. 151-162.

CITATION: Castro, C. Antiguedades mexicanas, que existen en el Museo Nacional de Mexico, 1857. Plate 38. In Mexico y sus alrededores. Coleccion de vistas monumentales, paisajes y trajes del pais. Dibujados al natural y litografiados por los artistas mexicanos C. Castro, G. Rodriguez e J. campillo. Bajo la direccion de V. Debray. Published in 1869. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Sciences Library/Art, Prints and Photographs. Digital ID: 1519699.